Behrouz Mehri / AFP – Getty Images
Es'hagh Akhamzadeh locks the door housing the Torah scroll after placing it in inside the designated cupboard during morning prayers at Youssef Abad synagogue in Tehran on Sept. 30, 2013.
TEHRAN, Iran – During his eight years as president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad courted controversy on the world stage by questioning the scale of the Holocaust, the mass murder of up to 6 million Jews during World War II, or even if it happened. His fiery rhetoric – calling the Holocaust “a myth” – offended millions and added to Iran’s global isolation.
The new administration of President Hassan Rouhani has taken a different, softer attitude, but still has not laid the issue to rest.
When NBC’s Ann Curry asked Rouhani about the Holocaust during his first foreign media interview his answer was short and open to interpretation: “I’m not a historian. I’m a politician.”
In an exclusive interview with NBC's Ann Curry, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said his country is asking for peace, stability and the elimination of all weapons of mass destruction.
While the world waits for Iran’s new president to elaborate on his views, ordinary Iranians' knowledge about the Holocaust appears to be limited at best.
‘May have some truth to it…’
“We learn a little bit about World War II, but I don’t really know about the Holocaust,” said Sana Samie, a 21-year-old student wearing a loose fitting coat and jeans in the Tajirish Bazaar in north Tehran on a recent afternoon.
Mehrdad Kamali, a 32-year-old electrician, also wearing jeans in the same market, echoed Samie’s statement. “We were not really taught about it in school, but I have seen films and read books about it. It is very sad.”
But, Abbas, a 40-year-old unemployed man who refused to give his full name, was more skeptical. “I have heard of it – and it may have some truth to it – but I think the Jews have exploited it to their benefit. They keep using it so they can crush the Palestinians.”
Many other young people NBC stopped to talk to simply had no idea what the Holocaust was.
A new phenomenon
It may come as a surprise to some Americans – but with a population of about 80 million, Iran does have a small Jewish community of about 25,000 – down from about 200,000 Jews during the pre-Islamic revolution of 1979 era.
And under the Shah’s old regime, Iran and Israel had good relations. The Islamic Revolution in 1979 ushered in an era of anti-Israel hostility, but there was no attempt to deny the Holocaust.
There are synagogues and Jewish schools in Iran – there is even a Jewish member of parliament. Although, there are limitations on how far Jews can go in the public sector; a person of Jewish faith can only reach the position of general manager at a government company.
Behrouz Mehri / AFP – Getty Images
An Iranian Jewish man reads the holy Torah at a synagogue in downtown Tehran on September 24, 2013.
Pari Motlag is a teacher at a school for Jewish children. She said that while they teach the children from one book about the Jewish faith, its customs, practices and history, the rest of the curriculum is the same as all the other schools in Iran. They are taught about World War II, but there is not a lot of detail about the Holocaust, it is just taught as a crime against humanity, genocide.
Ahmadinejad initially called the Nazi genocide of the Jews into question during his first year in office in 2005, calling it “a myth.”
Ahmadinejad even hosted the “International Conference on the Review of the Holocaust Global Vision” in Tehran in December of 2006. At the event, which was attended mostly by neo-Nazis and former KKK members like David Duke, Holocaust deniers and skeptics gathered to discuss whether 6 million people were really killed and if gas chambers really existed. The event did not get popular support and was never repeated.
Shortly afterward Iranian TV made an effort to show the country was not anti-Semitic by producing a very expensive and well-made TV series called “Zero Degree Turn.” The series profiled the true story of an Iranian diplomat in Paris who gave Jews Iranian passports in order to escape the Nazis – basically an Iranian version of Schindler’s List.
NBC News spoke to Iranians who were watched the program at the time and all of them were shocked when they heard about the Holocaust; they had no idea.
Rhetoric helped Israel, not Iran
So why did Ahmadinejad wade into the realm of Holocaust denial?
“I was surprised Mr. Ahmadinejad raised the question of the Holocaust because it has no interest whatsoever in the Iranian national objective. When Ahmadinejad raised the question it turned out to be more in favor of Israel,” said Dr.Hermidas Bavand, an American-educated professor in Tehran.
“Everyone took a negative view to whoever questioned the Holocaust, so it turned out to be more in favor of Israel. Israeli society, government, particularly capitalized on that situation,” said Bavand. “Denying the Holocaust damaged the political atmosphere of the country.”
Behrouz Mehri / AFP – Getty Images
Iranian Jewish men read from the Torah during morning prayers at Youssef Abad synagogue in Tehran on Sept. 30.
Bavand explained that since Iran is an Islamic state, it is upset with the occupation of Palestinian territories and that is why an animosity toward Israel exists.
“It is part and parcel of the ideological values of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” explained Bavand. “They took it upon themselves to support the cause of the Palestinians.”
A fresh start?
Now, Rouhani’s new administration seems be to trying to step away from the international pariah-status it thrust upon itself with Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust denials.
During his visit to New York for the United Nations General Assembly, Rouhani elaborated when asked about the Holocaust by saying that it “was a reprehensible and condemnable crime.” But he still refused to get into specifics.
"The Nazis committed a crime in World War II," Rouhani said. "As to the scale of the massacres, and the numbers that my predecessor mentions, let's leave that to the historians."
At schools, in shops, and on the streets of big cities and small towns, daily life plays out in Iran.
Rouhani’s Foreign Minister, Mohammed Javad Zarif, adopted an even softer, pragmatic tone. Zarif, a U.S.-educated diplomat who has spent most of his adult life in the States, seems more acutely aware of how much the issue has damaged Iran's international reputation.
"Iran never denied [the Holocaust]," he tweeted in an exchange with Christine Pelosi, the daughter of Nancy Pelosi, Minority Leader of the U.S. House of Representatives.
"The man who was perceived to be denying it is now gone," said Zarif, clearly referring to Ahmadinejad.
Still, Rouhani’s recent charm offensive has not satisfied all his critics. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Rouhani a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
But as far as Bavand is concerned, the Iranian people are not anti-Semitic, because there is no concept of anti-Semitism in Iran.
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This story was originally published on Fri Oct 11, 2013 11:37 AM EDT